Agent Zigzag, real name Eddie Chapman (1914 – 1997), was a safebreaker, thief, crook, and all around career criminal. He became the only Englishman ever awarded a German Iron Cross. It was ironic on many levels, because he was also one of history’s most colorful double crossers. He fed the Germans false information throughout much of WWII, that derailed the effectiveness of their “Vengeance Weapons”. That probably saved the lives of thousands of Londoners. Chapman was raised in a dysfunctional family, and became a delinquent at a young age. He enlisted in the British Army when he was seventeen, but within a few months he grew bored and deserted. When the military authorities caught up with him, he was sent to prison and dishonorably discharged.
After his release, Chapman turned to fraud and crime to support a gambling habit and a taste for fine drinks. He was on the lam in the Channel Islands when WWII began. A botched burglary earned him a two year sentence in a Jersey prison, and that was where the Germans found him when they captured the Channel Islands in 1940. To get out of jail, he offered to work for them, and they accepted. Chapman was freed and trained in the use of explosives, sabotage, and other clandestine skills, before he was parachuted into Britain in 1942, tasked with destroying a bomber factory.
Eddie Chapman was arrested soon after he landed in Britain. He immediately accepted an offer from British intelligence to become a double agent. It was an easy choice, since the alternative would have been a hangman’s noose. Given the code name “Agent Zigzag”, a plan was concocted to fake the bomber factory’s destruction. It convinced the Germans of Chapman’s effectiveness, and raised him high in their esteem. From then on, Chapman’s radio reports, carefully fed him by British intelligence, were treated as gospel by the Germans. He was recalled and given a hero’s welcome by the Germans. Soon after D-Day, he was awarded an Iron Cross and sent back to Britain to report on the effectiveness of the German V-1 and V-2 rocket strikes on London.
Under British control, Chapman sent the Germans inflated figures about deaths from their rockets, and deceived them about their actual impact points. That led the Germans to shift their aim points. As a result, they tended to fall on lower population density parts of London, with correspondingly fewer casualties. After the war, Chapman continued his colorful life. He became a smuggler, moved to the colonies, and started a farm. In violation of the Official Secrets Act, he published his exploits in The Eddie Chapman Story (1953), Free Agent: Further Adventures of Eddie Chapman (1955), and The Real Eddie Chapman Story (1966). Collectively, those books formed the basis of a 1967 movie about WWII espionage, Triple Cross.
Eddie Chapman was an English jailbird who nonetheless did some good, helped the Allies, and screwed the Nazis. Not so Harold Cole (1906 – 1946), an English jailbird who did the exact opposite: screwed the Allies and helped the Nazis. Cole served in the British Army at the start of WWII, then in the French Resistance, before he betrayed both and worked as a double agent for the Germans. In his extraordinary wartime career, he lied and conned his way across France, joined the Nazis, and spied and snitched on the Resistance, which resulted in the arrest and execution of many.
Cole was a dirt bag from early on. By the time he reached his teens, he was already an established burglar and check forger. He was no criminal mastermind, however, and frequently got caught. By 1939, he had served multiple stints in prison. When WWII began, he lied about his criminal history to enlist in the British Army, and was sent to France. Promoted to sergeant, he was arrested for stealing money from the Sergeants’ Mess to splurge on prostitutes. As seen below, he did not stay locked up for long.
A Convoluted Journey from German Captivity, to the French Resistance, and Betrayal of the Resistance
As the German blitzkrieg overran France, Harold Cole became a POW in May, 1940 when the Germans captured the guardhouse where he was jailed. Cole escaped German captivity and made his way to Lille, where he got in touch with the French Resistance. He convinced them that he was a British intelligence agent sent to organize escape lines to get stranded and fleeing British military personnel back home. At first, Cole actually helped the Allied cause. He escorted escaped personnel across Nazi-occupied territory to the relative safety of Vichy France. From there, they slipped into Spain and a ship back home.
He also embezzled from the funds intended to finance those operations to pay for a high society lifestyle of nightclubs, pricey restaurants, expensive champagne, fast cars, and faster girls. When his thefts came to light in 1941, the Resistance arrested and locked him up. While they deliberated what to do about him, Cole escaped. On the run from the Resistance, he turned himself in to the Nazis. He gave them 30 pages of Resistance member names and addresses, and became an agent of the SS’ Sicherheitdienst, or SD.
Cole had already double crossed, so it was no big deal for him to triple cross, and turn against the Nazis. He hunted his former masters, and murdered at least one of them. The British eventually arrested Cole, but he escaped while awaiting court martial and fled to France. There, French police received a tip-off that revealed his whereabouts in a central Paris apartment. On January 8th, 1946, they crept up a staircase to arrest him, but their heavy tread gave them away. Cole met them at the doorway, pistol in hand, and was killed in a shootout.
Before He Tangled With Darth Vader, Obi Wan Kenobi Took on the Nazis
Sir Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000) was one of Britain’s greatest stage and film actors. His decades-long career included roles such as his Oscar-winning performance in 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as notable performances in movies like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s. However, the role for which he is best known today is as Obi Wan Kenobi. It is ironic, because he thought the Star Wars trilogy was tripe.
Less known about Sir Alec Guinness is that he was also a British Royal Navy veteran who saw combat in WWII. Guinness had begun his career in the theater at age twenty, while still a drama student. By age twenty two, he had attracted attention as a Shakespearean actor, and was befriended and mentored by stage legends of his day. After WWII broke out, Guinness enlisted as a seaman in the Royal Navy Reserves in 1941, at age twenty seven. By 1942, he had been commissioned a naval officer.
Alec Guinness was ordered to Boston in 1943 to take charge of his first command, a freshly built landing craft. He sailed his ship and new crew across the Atlantic to North Africa. There, they began to train for the Allied invasion of Sicily. On July 9th, 1943 he took 200 men to land on Passaro, Sicily. However, because of a communications breakdown, he was not informed that the invasion had been delayed. So his craft arrived on the beach alone and disembarked its troops an hour early.
Later, he landed troops on the island of Elba, and in the Normandy invasion. He also ferried agents and supplies to the Yugoslav partisans. During the war, he was allowed a leave of absence to appear onstage in the play Flare Path, about the RAF’s Bomber Command. Guinness’ WWII experiences led him to contemplate becoming a priest. Fortunately for the stage and film and millions of viewers worldwide, he decided to continue his thespian career, which he resumed after his demobilization.
The Tehran Conference, November 28th to December 1st, 1943 was the first meeting of the “Big Three” Allied leaders of WWII, FDR, Stalin, and Churchill. Over the course of multiple sessions major issues of common strategy were hammered out. Chief among them was a solid commitment by Roosevelt and Churchill to invade France in 1944 in order to open a major second front against Germany. Also addressed were the envisaged postwar settlement, and smaller issues such as operations in Yugoslavia, relations with Iran and Turkey, plus Japan. All in all, it was a successful conference that bore fruit and advanced the Allies’ cause.
It almost ended in disaster. The Germans got wind of the planned conference, and put their extensive intelligence network in Iran to report on the security measures in place to protect the Allied leaders. German agents were parachuted into Iran to lay the groundwork for a commando strike led by Otto Skorzeny, Germany’s premier special forces operative, to take out the Big Three. It did not happen, because the Nazis’ plans were foiled by a teenage Soviet spy, Gevork Vartanian (1924 – 2012).
This Spy Was Literally Born Inside Soviet Secret Intelligence
Gevork Andreevich Vartanian was born in 1924 to Armenian parents near Rostov, in southern Russia. His father worked for the NKVD – predecessor of the KGB and today’s FSB and SVR. In 1930, his family moved to Iran. There, Vartanian’s father, under the guise of an Armenian businessman, spent the next two decades as a secret Soviet intelligence agent. The son followed in his father’s footsteps, and in 1940, sixteen-year-old Gevork was recruited by the senior Vartanian into the NKVD. Young Vartanian started off as a recruiter, and signed up Iranians and foreign residents as Soviet agents and assets. He proved an excellent recruiter, despite his youth.
In 1941, the USSR was thrust into WWII when the Germans launched a massive surprise attack, Operation Barbarossa, that nearly overwhelmed the Soviet Union. The Red Air Force was all but annihilated in the first few days of the onslaught, and Red Army formations along the USSR’s western border were shattered or bypassed, to be encircled and mopped up later. Within weeks, German armored columns had penetrated hundreds of miles into Soviet territory, and Soviets casualties rapidly rose into the millions.
As the German onslaught plunged ever deeper into the USSR in the summer of 1941, the Soviets hung on by the skin of their teeth, at the brink of collapse at any moment. Low on everything as their stockpiles were destroyed and their factories overrun or hurriedly evacuated to keep them out of German hands, the Soviets were in desperate need of any assistance. It was against that backdrop that Iran, on the USSR’s southern border, took on special importance as a secure route through which to funnel supplies to the hard-pressed Soviets. Accordingly, the Soviets and British jointly invaded Iran in August, 1941, to secure its oilfields, and ensure that an Allied supply route to the USSR through Iranian territory was kept open. The invaders deposed Iran’s ruler, the Shah, and replaced him with his more pliant son. Iran was then divided between the British and Soviets.
Understandably, the invasion and occupation did not sit well with most locals. The affections of many Iranians gravitated towards Germany, the enemy of the foreigners who occupied their country. German intelligence recruitment in Iran spiked, as the numbers of German sympathizers exploded. Gevork Vartanian’s workload increased, and his assignments were expanded from recruitment to include counterintelligence as well. The teenager proved himself a counterintelligence prodigy, and a veritable Pac Man at sniffing out and busting enemy spooks. By early 1942, Vartanian’s team of seven intelligence operatives had identified over 400 German agents in the Soviet zone. All of them were rounded up by Soviet troops and security personnel. In 1943, Vartanian was given a new assignment: ensure the security of the upcoming Tehran Conference. His mission was to identify and nip in the bud any enemy plans to disrupt the Big Three’s meeting.
The Nazis Got Wind of the Big Three’s First Conference
There was good cause for worry about the security of the planned Tehran Conference. The Germans’ intelligence presence in Iran had mushroomed after the country was occupied by the British and Soviets. It was reasonable to expect that they would do what they could to derail the conference if they got wind of it. The Germans got wind of it after their military intelligence, the Abwehr, cracked a US Navy code, and discovered that a major WWII conference was to be held in Tehran, tentatively scheduled for October, 1943.
The information was passed on to Hitler, along with recommendations to disrupt the planned Allied meeting with a commando attack. The result was Operation Long Jump, which aimed to assassinate the Big Three Allied leaders in order to definitively derail the Tehran Conference. Operational control was passed to SS general Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA – the German acronyms of the Reich Main Security Office). The RSHA was the Nazis’ intelligence arm, which combined the SS intelligence service and the interior ministry’s security police.
The Nazi Plan to Assassinate FDR, Churchill, and Stalin in One Go
Ernst Kaltenbrunner utilized Germany’s prize undercover agent in the Middle East, the Albanian Elyesa Bazna (codename “Cicero”), to lay the groundwork for Operation Long Jump. To carry out the actual attack, Kaltenbrunner turned to SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. By 1943 Skorzeny, a former bodyguard of Hitler who had gone into special operations work, had solidified his status as Germany’s premier commando. That September, he had successfully carried out an intrepid airborne raid that rescued deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity in a mountaintop ski resort. He then personally piloted a small plane that flew the freed fascist leader to safety. In short, Skorzeny was a highly capable, and highly dangerous, operative.
Fortunately, the Allies got wind of the German scheme. A Soviet intelligence agent, who posed as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi occupied Ukraine, came across an SS officer who was prone to blabbing when in his cups. The Soviet operative got the SS man drunk, and the inebriated Nazi began to boast about his access and insider knowledge. Among the nuggets he let slip was that a “big” operation was in the works. It was to take place in Iran, and was expected to upend WWII and strike the Allies a serious blow by assassinating their leaders.
The Germans Parachuted an Advance Team to Further Their Plan to Assassinate the Allied Leaders
The drunk SS man did not give specific dates. However, he gave enough clues. They were followed up and cross checked with information gathered from other sources, and confirmed that the Germans knew of the Big Three’s planned meeting in Tehran. Soviet resources and assets in Iran were marshaled to counter the threat, and Gevork Vartanian and his team were put on the trail of the German agents. In 1943, German intelligence parachuted an advance party of six radio operators near the Iranian city of Qum, about forty miles from Tehran.
The air dropped Nazis’ immediate task was to link up with other German cells and assets in and around the Iranian capital. They were then to coordinate the activities of various agents on the ground, and scout routes to and from their targets’ expected locations. Once the advance team laid the groundwork, they would be joined by Otto Skorzeny, who had visited Tehran on a different mission and been tailed by Vartanian’s team in 1942. Fortunately for the Allies, Vartanian found out in the fall of 1943 about the Germans who had parachuted into Qum.
Unraveling the Plan to Assassinate the Major Allied Leaders
Gevork Vartanian followed up on the trail of the Germans who had parachuted into Qum. It led the teenage spy to a villa in Tehran, where Operation Long Jump’s advance team had moved in with an Abwehr cell. From that base, the Germans radioed intelligence reports back to Berlin. Unbeknownst to the Germans, their transmissions were intercepted and decoded by the NKVD. The intercepts revealed that Skorzeny was scheduled to arrive in mid-October, along with the actual kill team. That was derailed when the Soviets raided the German spy nest and arrested all its occupants.
The NKVD then sought to turn the radio operators into double agents. They forced them to continue their transmissions to their handlers in Berlin, but now under Soviet supervision. It was an ambitious plan, that sought among other things to lure the Nazis’ star special forces operative into a trap that would have made for a great propaganda coup. It was derailed, however, when one of the Germans managed to slip a prearranged code in one of his transmissions. It alerted Berlin that the messages were sent under duress. Operation Long Jump was cancelled, and Skorzeny never returned to Tehran.
After WWII ended, Ernst Kaltenbrunner became the highest ranking SS member to face justice at the Nuremberg trial. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentenced to death, and hanged in 1946. Otto Skorzeny carried out special missions for the Nazis’ until war’s end. He was captured, but escaped from an internment camp in 1948. He went on the lam for a few years, and finally settled in Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain. Skorzeny spent time in Argentina, as an advisor to president Juan Peron, and as a bodyguard to his wife, Eva Peron. Versatile, he also worked as a military and security consultant for various Arab regimes, and performed the occasional gig for the Israeli Mossad. He died of lung cancer in Madrid, in 1975. As to Gevork Vartanian, he received his country’s highest award, Hero of the Soviet Union, in recognition of his services.
Vartanian met and married another NKVD agent. The duo spent more than three decades after WWII in Soviet intelligence, as it evolved from the NKVD to MGB to KGB to SVR. The couple got married several times throughout their career as part of their cover. Vartanian retired from the SVR in 1992, after which he trained young agents. His identity was kept secret until 2000, when his role in the defeat of Operation Long Jump was finally revealed. He died in 2012, aged 87. His funeral was attended by Russia’s then prime minister, and former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev described Vartanian as: “a legendary intelligence agent, a genuine patriot of his country, a bright and extraordinary person… He took part in splendid operations, which went down in the history of the Russian foreign intelligence service“.
A Man Who Played Hero on the Silver Screen and Was a WWII Hero in Real Life
James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997), one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, starred in many movies that became beloved classics. He was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in the depiction of middle class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. He appeared in more than eighty movies, with notable roles in the Christmas standby It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Vertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stewart was nominated for five Oscars, won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement.
Jimmy Stewart kicked off his thespian career in shows with a drama group in Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, he had secured roles on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood. A year later, he had his first breakthrough as lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer. From there, Stewart quickly established himself as one of Tinseltown’s premier actors. When WWII came along, Stewart took a break from Hollywood to go bomb the Nazis, then came back home and resumed his illustrious career.
The Star Who Left a Life of Luxury to Fight the Nazis
When America joined WWII, Jimmy Stewart was an established star. It would have been easy for him, as others from Hollywood had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne. Alternatively, he could have readily secured a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform, yet stay away from danger – cough, cough, Reagan. But Stewart’s grandfather had fought against the South, and his father had fought against both Spain and Germany. So when war came along in Stewart’s generation, it was natural that he would go off to fight. However, to get into uniform was a problem. He had been drafted by the Army in 1940, but was medically rejected because he was underweight.
However, Stewart was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935. He had accumulated over 400 hours in the cockpit by the time America got into WWII. He managed to get around the underweight bit, and enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1941. Upon his graduation from a pilot training program in 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Higher ups wanted to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances. However, Stewart wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders, he managed a transfer into a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in the autumn of 1943.
On December 13th, 1943, Jimmy Stewart flew his first combat mission. He piloted the lead B-24 of his group’s high squadron as they bombed a U-boat base in Kiel, Germany. A few days later, he flew the lead bomber for the entire group as they bombed Bremen. By February, 1944, Stewart had been promoted to major, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. A month later, he led an entire bomb wing on a raid that targeted Berlin. In late March, 1944, he was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. That assignment meant that Stewart was not required to fly combat missions. However, he wanted to inspire and encourage his new unit. So he personally piloted the lead B-24 on numerous raids deep into Germany, and served as a crewman on other missions.
Such conduct earned Stewart a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and other decorations. When WWII ended, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his career as an actor, but continued to serve in the US Air Force Reserves. He kept current with new bombers as they entered service, and was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. He was promoted to colonel in 1953, and was given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia. By 1959, Stewart had reached the rank of brigadier general. He retired in from the military in 1968.
This Tough Character From Dirty Bastards Was Actually a Tough WWII Veteran in Real Life
Lee Marvin was a prolific actor who appeared in about seventy films between 1951 and 1986. He won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1965 for his role in the Western comedy Cat Ballou. However, he is probably better known for his roles in The Dirty Dozen and Hell in the Pacific, as well as the NBC television series M Squad. Born in New York City in 1924, Lee Marvin was a problem child and teenage delinquent who liked to hunt and drink – sometimes both simultaneously. He was expelled from numerous schools for misconduct: he smoked cigarettes, and on one occasion, threw a schoolmate out of second story windows.
Marvin eventually dropped out of high school to become a US Marine when American joined WWII, and stormed beaches in the Pacific for a few years. He was promoted to corporal at some point, only to get busted back down to private for misconduct. He was seriously injured in the Battle of Saipan, first when he got hit by machine gun fire, then when a sniper shot him in the foot. It took Marvin a year to recover from his wounds, in which time he did some self reflection. He came out of WWII a calmer young man.
After WWII, Lee Marvin was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, and he drifted for a while, before he eventually got a job as a plumber’s assistant. One day he was in the midst of a pipe repair job in a theater, when an actor got sick. Marvin was recruited on the spot to step into the role, which fit his personality – a big and boisterous drunk. He took to the stage like a fish to water. After a few years in off-Broadway productions, followed by a small role in a Broadway piece, he moved to Hollywood in 1950.
There, Marvin got started with bit parts in war movies, where his real life combat experience lent authenticity to his performances. That experience also made him a sought after consultant by directors and actors who wanted to get a feel for authentic infantry behavior. Throughout his career, Marvin excelled in roughneck roles, mainly because he actually was a roughneck in real life, with a violent streak that made his malevolent and tough guy characters ring true. Lee Marvin died in 1987 at age sixty three, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
No spy had a greater impact on WWII than Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988). An eccentric Spaniard, Juan Pujol hoaxed the Germans with fictional espionage out of a sheer desire for adventure and excitement. That hoax grew into the greatest double cross operation of the conflict, and played a significant role in the Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign. Pujol Garcia hated fascists, so when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as a Nazi sympathizing Spanish government official, and offered his services to Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr.
The Nazis accepted, and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network. Pujol Garcia had neither the means nor the desire to do any such thing. So he simply faked it. Rather than go to Britain as instructed by the Abwehr, he went to Lisbon. From there, he simply fabricated reports about Britain. He used information gathered from public sources, embellished and seasoned with his own active imagination. He then sent it to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans, whose entire spy network in Britain had been arrested in the war’s opening days, were desperate for information. So they eagerly swallowed Pujol Garcia’s fake reports, and begged for more.
Juan Pujol Garcia obliged the Abwehr, and invented a network of fictional sub-agents, whom he used as sources for more fabricated reports. The British, who frequently intercepted and decoded secret German messages, realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans. When they discovered that it was Pujol Garcia acting on his own, they belatedly accepted his offer of services, and whisked him to Britain. There, he was given the codename GARBO, and directed to build up his imaginary network for the benefit of his German handlers. The original hoax was transformed into an elaborate double cross operation.
Through Pujol Garcia, the British carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities. The flood of reports from Pujol Garcia and his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents transformed him, in German eyes, into their most successful spy in Britain. The moment to cash in on that trust came in the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign. The ultimate aim was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger one planned against the Pas de Calais.
Years of Careful Deceptions Built Up to This One Moment
British intelligence wanted to cement Juan Pujol Garcia’s credibility with the Abwehr. So they had him send a message that alerted the Germans to the invasion a few hours before it began. It was a carefully calculated risk. Pujol Garcia’s handlers figured that by the time the alert worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place. Thus the message would have done the Germans no actual good on the ground, but it would still enhance Pujol Garcia’s reputation with his German handlers. They then went in for the kill. Building upon the years of trust, Pujol Garcia told the Abwehr that the Normandy landings were diversions.
The real blow, Pujol Garcia informed the Germans, would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. The Spaniard’s carefully crafted lies were coupled with other Allied deception measures. Key among them was a fictional First US Army Group. Commanded by General George S. Patton, it was supposedly massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais. The deceptions worked. The Germans were convinced throughout the crucial weeks of June, 1944, to keep powerful formations in the Pas de Calais, rather than rush them to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead.
By the time the German Pas de Calais formations were finally released for use in Normandy, it was too late. The Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to not only defeat German counterattacks, but to then go on the offensive, break out of the beachhead, and sweep across and liberate France within a few months. Juan Pujol Garcia ended up decorated by both sides. He earned an Iron Cross from a grateful Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from an even more grateful Britain.
After WWII, Pujol Garcia feared reprisals from the Nazis. So he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store. He led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. When the story of his deeds finally came out, he was received at Buckingham Palace, and was lionized in Britain. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he travelled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas, four years later.
The ‘King of Hollywood’ Left His Realm to Go Fight the Nazis
Once known as “The King of Hollywood”, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) was one of the silver screen’s greatest legends. He starred in over 60 movies, and is probably best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind. He won an Oscar as Best Actor for his lead in It Happened One Night. Other notable films in which he starred and that met both critical and commercial success include Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hucksters, and The Misfits, his last film, as well as that of his co-star, Marilyn Monroe. When America entered WWII, Gable was Hollywood’s biggest star at the time and its greatest box office draw. He gave it all up, and took a break from the silver screen to go and fight the Axis.
Gable had quit school at age sixteen to work in a tire factory, and decided to become an actor after he saw a play. As he nursed his dream, he took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to necktie salesman. In 1924, he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream. He began his Hollywood career as an extra. After years of bit parts and stints in the theater, he got a contract from MGM in 1930, and garnered notice for a powerful performance in his first starring role in The Painted Desert.
Clark Gable built on his success in The Painted Desert. When MGM paired him with established female stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the combination steamed the screen and he instantly became a star. By the time America entered WWII, he was MGM’s biggest earner. When his wife died in an air crash as she returned from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, he joined the US Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner.
The Hollywood star was sent instead to Officer Candidate School. He graduated in October, 1942, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, with orders to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America. In 1943, to obtain the combat footage needed for his recruitment film, Gable flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, including a bombing raid into Germany.
Clark Gable Wanted to Fly More WWII Combat Missions, but MGM Wouldn’t Allow It
Clark Gable’s presence in the WWII bomb missions was for propaganda and PR purposes. However, the dangers he ran were all too real. In one mission, his B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by enemy fighters. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after the airplane was hit by flak. Shrapnel went through Gable’s boot, and almost took off his head. When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s brushes with death, it worked its connections – despite his objections – to have him reassigned to noncombat duty.
For his service in Europe, Gable was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal. In late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He tried to get another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without a combat assignment, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was 43-years-old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the Air Forces reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading